How Cristiano Ronaldo showed he can be Manchester United’s star within a system


It was about as positive as Rangnick has ever been when speaking about a player who, he also admitted, is not always straightforward to manage. “It’s a challenge with a player like him,” he said. The United manager also conceded that Ronaldo’s work out of possession “has not always been like that in the last few weeks and months”.

Among all the praise, those were not the only notes of moderation in the United manager’s post-match remarks. Though Rangnick took every opportunity to hail the Portuguese’s match-winning display, he would also refer most Ronaldo-specific questions back to talk up the all-round performance of the entire team.

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What can Ronaldo offer going forward, he was asked. “Again I think it was a top performance today by the whole team,” Rangnick answered. “As I said earlier on he made the difference but it is not the right moment after a top performance to speak about what might happen in the next 15-16 months.”

What does he bring to the squad, though? “He is an important player of course, with his reputation and with the way he can still play he has influence on the team for sure, but there are also other players in the team who have to take responsibility, who have to perform, who can be leaders of the team.

“This is what I have been telling him since I arrived, that with a performance like today he can be one of the engines of the team, but we have quite a few other players who can do the same,” Rangnick added. “Fred, Harry [Maguire], Rapha[el Varane], Victor [Lindelof], whoever.”

It was not especially hard to pick up on the point Rangnick was making: that as brilliant as Ronaldo’s individual performance was, that of the team was just as important. More than one United player had impressed. Fred caught the eye in more of a free-roaming, box-to-box role. Diogo Dalot returned to bring a new dimension to a problem position. Jadon Sancho was excellent, as he has consistently been of late.

Ralf Rangnick praised his team’s performance after he was asked about Cristiano Ronaldo

Most impressive of all, perhaps, was United’s mentality. It is something that has been repeatedly called into question since Rangnick’s appointment, given the number of leads squandered. Leads were squandered once again on Saturday, twice in fact, but this time his players responded. “Coming back after two equalisers showed the mentality of the team today,” Rangnick said.

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And crucially, Ronaldo was part of that. While his individual display ultimately made the difference, it was not the display of an individualist. As Rangnick said, he was noticeably working harder off the ball. On it, he was turning up in positions that he does not usually fill, making runs and occupying defenders when too often this season, he has been a static focal point waiting for the ball to come to him rather than actively seeking it out.

It is still not an easy fit, as Rangnick’s ‘challenge’ quote suggests. This was an anomaly in his performances under United’s interim manager so far, an exception to the rule, and it will not necessarily mark a turning point for him, United or this second spell at Old Trafford. Ronaldo was a star within a system, working to its particular demands, and that only helped him shine brighter.

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